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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of the Darkside

The Long Branch buttress in Smoke Hole Canyon was first explored by hunters wearing the skins of animals and using bows and snares.

A short time later, geologically speaking, young men from all corners of the United States wandered through the region on their way to shoot young men from all over Europe and Asia. During or shortly after this point, rock climbing began in the canyon.

After an even smaller interval, during the 70s and 80s, hardpersons of Germany Valley and the eastern seaboard came here to escape the rock-trundling tourons of Seneca Rocks and Beltway refugees of Carderrocks and Great Falls.

Darrel Hensley was climbing in Smoke Hole long before most people even knew where the place was, and it was at his invitation that I came to climb there with Troy Johnson and a handful of friends in the early 90s, developing routes on the Long Branch and Deadly Ninja Walls.

In 1994, I helped Troy, an active young Shenandoah Valley caver, kayaker and rock climber, create a steep line out the tiered roofs of what we referred to as The Darkside, the north and east-facing end of the Long Branch buttress.

At the time, Troy climbed 5.11 off the couch and had established a number of hard climbs throughout the region, as well as at New River Gorge and other southeastern crags.  But even his lanky power wasn't enough to conquer the unrelenting pump through the roofs to "easier" 5.11 terrain above, on a route that, unlike many hard lines, checks in with ten well-spaced (some might say run-out) bolts before reaching the anchors.

Flash forward two decades.  Troy does not climb these days, having been involved in a serious auto accident that left him with debilitating physical injuries.  I still climb, but the likelihood of me accomplishing the first ascnet on a route that stymied the best efforts of a climber who packed twice my talent into a body two-thirds my size is roughly the same as the odds of my waking up as a long-legged chorus girl- slim to none.  

Repeated invitations to assorted hardmen and women have availed me nothing, the route still stands, waiting.

Enter Mike Farnsworth, Harrisonburg, Virginia resident, former 'Dacks climber and local route developer.  Mike made a splash locally with the first ascent of the 5.13 "Nightmare" project at Seneca rocks, and followed that a new route debut in the Smoke Hole region, where he put up the big-roof line "Black Magic" (5.12+) on the middle Impact Zone walls in Franklin Gorge.

With support, belays, and timely supply of a beer via clipstick from partner on rope and in life Connie, he went on to add the steep direct start "Harlem" to my moderate line "Winterharvest", then added an alternate finish to Mike Fisher's pumpy 5.10 "Aphophis" with the airy 5.12 outing "Skywalker", and drilled the moderate "Superwoman" all in one weekend, at nearby Reed's Creek.

Through several online discussions, Mike remained positive and cheerful, and in person showed an enthusiasm and curiosity about obscure walls and new route opportunities in West Virginia that has become all too rare in the age of phone app topos and Falcon Press guides to everything over fifteen feet tall.

After his work on "Skywalker", which he bolted in gusty 32 degree winds with snow flurries, I offered to show Mike some of the other climbs in the region.  Having seen his strenght and love of steep terrain, I pointed him in the direction of troy's project, still awaiting first ascent.

Mike spent his first visit, a midweek afternoon, getting sandbagged on a nearby route and equipping the line, trying three more times, working through all of the moves but falling at the precision crux after the roofs.  We left the line equipped and planned on another attempt this weekend.

Mike got back early Saturday, and after our ubiquitous boulder-scramble session up through the greening talus field, we threw down in the massive shadow under the wall Through the Looking Glass, the north-facing end of the Darkside.

A warm-up on the route for which the wall is named led to toprope climbing forthe rest of us before I scrambled up the slope to the top of the cliff to set a toprope on a nearby project.  Mike rested as we scrubbed and flaked and enjoyed all the good, dirty, high-impact, ecologically incorrect fun and brutally hard work that comes with putting up new routes.

A few minutes before lunch, Mister Farnsworth tied in again.  I checked my belay and wished him good luck, and he went about the business of first ascent as if it were a job, something he did on a daily basis.  the precision move that had halted him snapped through without a pause, the footwork was clean and precise, and in a few moment more, he clipped the anchors and  "The Lightness" was a matter of record.

"The Lightness", 10 bolts and cold shuts, 5.12+, 85+ feet, Through the Looking Glass Wall, Darkside, Long Branch.

Friday, April 11, 2014


One happy woman; Cindy Gray on the South Branch

Perfect weather, a new fishing pole and brand-new license led my wife Cindy to the river as Mike and I clambered up through the overgrown talus blocks that serve as a trail to reach the Darkside, our target the 20-year old project that waited first ascent in the area Through the Looking Glass.

Had the pleasure of a day in Smoke Hole Canyon, capped by the privilege of belaying a strong young climber from the Shenandoah Valley on one of our oldest projects on Wednesday afternoon. 

Mike Farnsworth at the anchors of Troy Johnson's 20-year-old testpiece

After an afternoon of discovery and near-misses, we left the route equipped and scheduled a rendezvous for Saturday and a return engagement.  Mike headed for the Shenandoah Valley, while Cindy and I motored slowly home through mountains of Smoke Hole.

Watch this space for further developments.

The heck with that.... get out there, find something of your own and get after it!

Climb on!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

We Went Climbing

70 degrees, sunshine, a few light breezes, a NASCAR race on TV, and of all places to be, we were out in the woods!

Hard to believe, right?

A few shots of the fun we had, while you were all down at the New River or elsewhere, sharing lines and parking and campgrounds with 10,000 of your closest friends.

Cindy Gray goes after the start of "Winterharvest"

Some old guy, on his own line, cruisin'

Ryan Eubank, man of steel, holding onto absolutely nothing at all, while carrying a four-pound hammer.  Some people say he's a superhero in his spare time.  Colonel Nick Fury and the rest of the Avengers declined to comment.

Cory, working the tiered roofs of "Apophus", another great Mike Fisher line.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Just Who the Hell is Mike Gray?

He’s not a hard numbers climber; he has no account at 8a.ego.  

His online ticklist looks average to weak; he doesn’t boulder V6, never on-sighted anything harder than 5.11 or worked on any of the steep famous lines at the New or Red.  

He put up some lines at Franklin but none of them is harder than 10a. He doesn’t climb anything harder on a regular basis and he’s not a guide, never been a guide or been AMGA certified.  Not a member of any gym, climbing club or organization. 

He chopped the routes at Franklin.  

He’s a tyrant and an ass who thinks he owns the crags.   

He’s obsessed with impact and dogs, landowner rights and something called stewardship.  

He has an online reputation as someone with a quick temper and a disregard for public opinion, while wandering off on tangents, waxing long-winded and posting rants about trails and impact out of the clear blue, slagging on the hallowed institutions that keep climbing safe and available for all.

That's what you can get from the online community and some of my biggest fans.

Now, here's my side of the story.

I was born on a United States Air Force base in Torrejon de Ardos, a small Spanish town just north of Madrid, and raised in Alcala de Cervantes, the firstborn son of an Air Force vet and a former State Department employee.  I was swimming in the Mediterranean before I could walk.

I first saw Virginia when I was about five years old.  After years on military bases and in off-base housing in Loring, Maine and Chickapee, Massachusetts, my family left military service, and we parked our tiny mobile home in National Coach Trailer Park, just outside the Central Shenandoah Valley city of Harrisonburg.

My life was a series of contrasts; we lived in trailers and trailer parks most of the year, I spent summers on the beaches of North Carolina and New England and running wild in the fields and forests on my maternal grandparents' huge farm, nestled amid the rolling hills just outside the tiny town of Meaderboro, New Hampshire. 

Back in the Old Dominion, we frequently spent weekends and holidays at my father's home place in the mountains of the Blue Ridge, just outside Stanley, Virginia, immersed in dogs and cousins and fried food, the smell of cigarette smoke and kerosene lanterns, debates regarding sports as wildly disparate as baseball and professional wrestling, tall tales of racing, fightin’, drinkin’, lovin’ and woe.  Despite urban beginnings in a rigidly regimented system, I was a country boy from day one.

I discovered backpacking, caving and camping long before girls and cars and rock and roll, becoming a regular after-school/summer vacation inhabitant of Land-Sea Passages, a tiny outdoor gear shop located in an aging building which had once housed a thriving bordello in the heart of the city. Those days had long since passed, politicians and corporate giants either importing their mistresses or traveling to the distant lights of DC and Richmond for their more sordid entertainment.  The heyday of reigning as the Poultry Capitol of the United States had ended with the Johnson administration, and Harrisonburg had grown into a college town with dreams of university.

At this same point in time, I met a sarcastic local skate punk, climber and caver named Kris Kline.   Although several years apart in age, something in our very different souls clicked, and Kris took me under his wing, introducing me to the concept of climbing on top rope, in my clunky military surplus boots, on the featured faces of Chimney Rock, dragging me through the underground wonderlands of neighboring West Virginia’s Pendleton County with its many caves and caverns. 

With the money I earned working weekends and school holidays as an electrician’s helper in my father’s contracting business, I purchased a backpack, sleeping bag and boots, the de rigueur wool balaclava and fingerless gloves to go with my new 1” webbing swami and Goldline rope, locking carabiner and figure 8, carbide lamp and miner's helmet.  I took a beginner’s class in basic rappel skills, saw my first climbing magazine, and became an instant addict to the vertical circus when I was too young to drive.

In an age when many of my peers were minor offenders and even parents before leaving high school, I took the path less traveled... and I've never looked back.

Years passed, Kris headed off to college, I entered junior high and life brought an entire new set of challenges and revelations.  I was too smart for my age and not smart enough to hide it from the older and meaner kids in my neighborhood and schools.  I discovered religion, then faith, then fanaticism, the latter more as a victim than an adherent.  I was a problem child, one of those kids who gets notes on his report cards with comments like "Michael is so bright... if only he would apply himself just a bit more."

I moved through schools; Montevideo, People's Christian Academy, and, eventually, Harrisonburg High.  It was at HHS that I met my future wife; a smiling, sensual elf of a lass named Deena Carper, with huge eyes and a wide wicked smile and a common aching to be accepted for who we were, instead of who we were expected to become.

We fell deeply in love, and made the typical youngsters' mistake of getting married right out of high school, in a fairy tale hippie style wedding in the George Washington National Forest.  We moved to the nearby town of Waynesboro and took jobs that did little for our souls or selves, still managing to escape to the mountains to hike and camp and take pictures, picnicking and exploring, making love under the spreading oaks of the Blue Ridge, dreaming away the winter evenings while the Grateful Dead played in the background and snow fell on the streets of the city.  We partied too much, fought more often, talked less and less and began to drift apart, filling the widening gap with alcohol and drugs, questionable friends and more questionable choices that finally forced us apart two years after our wedding.

The years after this were cold and hard.  I accelerated to light speed, maintaining a blurred perspective on life that cleared just enough to attend my sister's wedding to my best friend and to make the occasional drive to the mountains. Climbing gear and backpacking equipment gathered dust in my closet, and dreams gathered dust in the corners of my soul.  There were women; loud party animals and succubi, wounded waifs and victims of my own darkness, temptresses half my age and half again.   There were nights and days without sleep or food, and memories I would give anything to forget.

But the roads we walk shape us, for better or worse.  In that crucible of pain and darkness, the disparate elements of Michael Gray were annealed into something stronger, with a growing vision of the world I wanted to make for myself.

Then one night, drowning in despair, I walked into a smoky bar and met the eyes of a willowy blonde across the room, like a scene straight out of the worst Harlequin romance.  I was the lead singer of a heavy metal rock band at the time, spending every other Thursday night as a stand-up comic at Open Mike Night at Joker's Bar and Grille just north of downtown in the 'burg, working days as a concrete finisher and industrial carpenter for the slave masters at Nielsen Construction.

Melissa was a local girl, a former cross-country runner who had recently dumped her high school sweetheart and was now living on her own in a little apartment that turned out to be within sight of the place I was living on South Avenue.  She worked at the Harrisonburg Auto Auction, drank like a fish, could swear and belch like a sailor, and loved the outdoors.  We made our way back to my place when the bar closed, where a long night of brews, tubes, laughter and conversation turned into the dawn of Easter Sunday and our first kisses.  Two days later she was laughing on the back of my Kawasaki GPz 750, and waking up in my rumpled bed.

In her company, I returned to rock climbing, and began steadily working my way through the basics; bouldering, top roping and learning to place trad gear at little crags like Chimney Rock in Broadway and Hidden Rocks in Hone Quarry, hiking and camping in rain, sun, and snow along the Skyline Drive, the WV border, and into the Alleghenies.

By now, Land-Sea Passages was no more, having become Wilderness Voyagers and relocating to the old Blue Ridge Records and Books building on Mason Street. The business was now owned by Bix and Terry Houff and staffed by a hardcore crew of climbers and outdoor enthusiasts.  John Burcham, Tracy Ramm,  and Todd Shenk guided and shaped many of the young tigers who walked through their doors, and I will never be able to adequately express my appreciation for their wisdom and patience with an often loud, brash, and opinionated military brat that wandered in one day and has eventually grown into your humble author.

It was Tracy who first told us about Franklin, WV, pointing us toward the exploding sub discipline known as sport climbing, wherein bolts are placed on otherwise unprotectable faces instead of inserting gear into natural features like cracks and pockets.  

This practice, once controversial to the point of making its advocates pariah among the climbing community, had taken fire in Europe and spread to America, pushing the grades of difficulty upward in a parabolic curve.  Instead of spending decades learning to climb harder, climbers were mastering the sport up to the cutting edge in a matter of years; developing new lines and discovering new crags like a late-20th century gold rush.  

The wave was building, the storm rising, and we were caught in the eye, riding the crest.

At Franklin I met, climbed with and was mentored by some of the most influential climbers of the day; Eddie Begoon, Paul Sullivan, Mike Artz and wife Avery, George Powell, Howard and Amy Clarke, Dan Croats, Dan Miller, Tony Barnes, Darrel Hensley, and Angie McGinnis.   

Tracy Ramm, Todd Shenk and John Burcham were there, as well; setting new standards, equipping new lines, and encouraging, always encouraging us to push harder, reach further, and believe.  

We graduated to Seneca, following in the footsteps of generations of hard climbers, exploring the world of the semi-alpine and the multi-pitch climb, learning to conquer fear of heights and fear of failure in the rush of adrenaline and accomplishment of looking 900 feet down into the valley below.

Melissa and I became part of a small group of young climbers, the Five Deadly Ninjas, whose numbers and composition changed constantly in the following months; college students Eric McCulley and Rachel Levinson, local climbing and motocross prodigy and heir to the Endless Caverns legacy Troy Johnson, Madison County climbers Mike Fisher and partners Pete Almquist and Gregg "Juju".  

This nucleus explored the boulders and walls of Gum Run, the Rawley Aretes, Second Mountain and Dictum Ridge, Hidden Rocks and the numerous bouldering hotspots of Hone Quarry.  We put up new sport routes in Franklin and Germany Valley, bushwhacked to distant choss piles throughout the Blue Ridge, bivvied together through rain and snow and heat and biting flies in New River Gorge, partied together when back in the "real" world, endlessly debated all the mistakes our parents' generation made and which ours would someday repeat.  

We fell in, fell out, and, step by step, moved a bit further down the Path.

During the early 90s, your humble author was leading and later bolting his first sport lines in Franklin Gorge, starting with the 5.8s Belly of the Whale and Aloha and the appropriately-named Hard Thing.  

Due to a long spate of bad weather and unemployment, as well as a willingness to spend entire days either freezing or baking while dodging loose rock and eating dirt on belay, he found a place on the first ascent teams of routes like George Powell’s delightful Anchors Aweigh and John Burcham’s Rock Your World and Walk the Plank.

In November of 1995, he took a one-way ticket to Sacramento, California and, for the next six months, climbed, hiked, and in every way embodied the old and honorable tradition, dirtbagging; camping in bounds and out  in Yosemite and J-Tree, Red Rocks and Hueco (back when it was still wide open to climbers), climbing and bouldering every day that shredded skin and screaming muscle would allow, dumpster diving and sweet-talking day-old produce and bakery goods out of cashiers across the land.  

He survived headlamp rappels and blind 5th class down climbs in the Needles of California, topped out and retreated in thunderstorms and hail, torrential rain and sleet, and weathered sub-zero bivvies while homeless in Flagstaff. 

Although a vocal critic of the Access Fund and the affiliates that thrive and create more access issues than they solve at America's climbing “scenes”, I have in the past worked as a volunteer building stage and scaffold for the Phoenix Climbing Competition in 1997 and ’98, guarding the gear and site while the event staff was gone during construction and donating $100 of my bartender’s tips to the Access Fund on the night of the awards ceremony, as well as, on more than one occasion, making anonymous cash donations at climbing events and for local affiliates in other areas.

In the spring of 1998, while living in Phoenix and working as a stagehand and concert rigger, I went looking for something new, discovered and began development of the trails and routes of Northern Devil’s Canyon in the Dripping Spring Mountains of Arizona.  

In the next four years, I pruned a coherent approach out of the profusion of old cattle and game trails, built belay platforms and dodged scorpions and rattlesnakes as I put up new routes on assorted faces around the canyon.  

When my early climbing partnership with fellow Rhino rigger Rob Bracey came to an end (an event that was strictly my fault), I often resorted to leading routes with an altered Gri-gri for roped solo or with inexperienced stage hands hastily instructed in the basics riding belay.

I survived, and time passed.
Eventually, I ran into Devil’s Canyon pioneers Rich LeMal and Marty Karabin and began developing routes like Red Raspberry, Slappin’ Stinky and Exit Stage Right.

In 2001 and again in ‘02, striking northeast for a change of scenery and pace, I hooked up with local climbers Tom Reid and Bryan Gartland to do ground-up ascents on the short but exciting lines of North Lake and the boulders and faces of Monument Lake in Colorado.  

Climbing outings were wedged in between days spent above 11,000 feet, working as a carpenter with Kingdom Construction, Reid’s custom home building company, and paying for campsite and meals by moonlighting as a maintenance man, bar tender and security guard at Monument Lake cabins and campground.

In October of 2006, once again on the east coast, I moved into the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon and returned to exploring, building trail, and developing new lines in the area.

In the winter of 2007, burnt out on the frantic socializing and rampant impact of Franklin Gorge, I went wandering and found the abandoned gear and three existing bolted lines on what had for years been posted as private land along Reed’s Creek, West Virginia.  

In the next six months, I restarted development and opened a dialogue with the Monongahela National Forest.  With the help of the Cheat Potomac Ranger Station and Recreation Director Julie Fosbender, I arranged to have the property boundaries resurveyed and marked to protect landowner privacy as well as to secure and define climbing access.  

My wife Cindy, along with friends and fellow route developers Michael Fisher and Ryan Eubank, put in hours of work stabilizing trails and belays. 

Through my online rants and posts of responsibility’s inseparable link to freedom and rights, I made contact with Professor Jamie Struck and the Outdoor Adventure class of Lyndon State College in Vermont.  They came with willing hands and wide eyes and have made it their mission since 2008 to improve Reed’s Creek, Smoke Hole Canyon, and Franklin Gorge.

In April of 2011, we moved out of our apartment in Petersburg, WV and spent the next two months camped in the national forest and on private land of friends around Smoke Hole Canyon, the forgotten gem of the eastern Panhandle.  I worked as an electrician and we made plans, and in July, we set out for the west, on a quest to re-discover America and share some of the scenes of our respective childhoods.  

In August, we were married in a little chapel outside Flagstaff, Arizona, where we were living out of a tent in the Tonto National Forest.  I worked as a cook, dishwasher, and snow removal crew through the summer and winter of '11.  

We returned to Virginia and West Virginia via Greyhound for the holidays, and if ever I find myself riding a Greyhound bus again, I will surely know that I have died and gone on down to hell.

Back in Flagstaff, we fought bedbugs and black mold, crackheads and prejudice, and eventually surrendered when Cindy's health took a turn for the worse, after two years of steady improvement, since she had weaned herself off a dozen narcotics and began treating her Multiple Sclerosis with medical cannabis and an extract of the lion's mane fungus from Fungi Perfecti.

We came back to WV with the spring; couch surfed, camped out, and watched with pride as Cindy's daughter graduated from nursing school.  Jamie Struck and the kids from LSC returned, more trail was built, and more fun had by all, before they headed home and we headed west, once again.

From March of 2012 through April of 2013, we lived out of an S10 pickup truck in a series of tents under shelters, pine trees and stars. 

We drove the freeways and back roads, hiked and climbed and camped in state parks and National Forests from West Virginia to Colorado, Arizona to Joshua Tree; moving with the seasons, paying for repairs, upkeep, gas and groceries, bolts and bits by working in restaurants and cantinas, dodging moose at 10,000 feet in the Rockies and living with wild horses and city dwellers who were worse than the Sonoran rattlesnakes pruning Palo Verde and occotillo and wandering through the edge of the Superstitions Wilderness as camp hosts and booth staff; exploring an assortment of cities and small towns while re-discovering the less-visited corners of America. 

In 2103, we returned to the east coast for the impending birth of our grand daughter, the marriage of Cindy's son, and to be closer to my family.  After two years on the road, we found ourselves once again indoors, caring for an infant and the health of our families and loved ones, visiting old friends and crags, making new acquaintances, exploring new corners and putting up new routes.  

Although we haven't kept up the incredible pace of exploration we knew on the road and during the first years of our relationship due to the trials and demands of day-to-day life over the course of 2013-14, Cindy and I continue to discover and explore, every day finding new reasons to love this incredible place we call "home".

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April Fools: Two days with the West End Girls

New month, new crag

Miss Pink Pants getting ready to claim her spot, below the Streaked Wall

Sunny rock, no problem

"Fuel up... you'll need it."

Running laps on the traverse, between runs on the new line "Tight Sugar"

First glimpse of the West End Girls, from the top of the ridge, and your last view on the way back out.

'Nuff Said?

Friday, March 14, 2014

More Fun in the Sun

Checking out the Little Khumbu, the seasonal drip and ice-fall  at the end of the Reach Wall

Thirteen years after finding out that she had Multiple Sclerosis, Cindy is still taking her battle with the disease day-by-day, still LIVING.  Although she gets tired  and requires several days of recovery after hard pushes on stone or the trail, Cindy is still going strong, long after the doctors best guess predictions.

Six years after coming to Reed's Creek for the first time, the Curmudgeon eyes his latest addition and likely last line at this crag, the wandering 5.6 "Smoke on the Mountain", and thinks of other places in the sun, along the river, on the flanks of the North Fork Mountain.

Rainbows over the hills of West Virginia.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Short One

From the edge of the arctic to the first blush of Spring and thoughts of jumping in the river, all in a single week.

Ya gotta love West Virginia.

After a week of snow and ice, the weather turned and delivered a great Saturday, which the Power Couple spent serving Pacific Northwest style stir-fry to my parents and spoiling our grand-daughter, reminiscing and enjoying the changing seasons.

After early good-nights and a casual morning, we started out Sunday with full packs and temperatures already in the high forties under clearing skies.  Traffic was light and it was with some surprise that we found Reed's Creek Road devoid of any sign of other climbers, with plenty of sunshine and dry lines and hints of returning native life.  Ferns glowed green and the moss sparkled in renewed life as we wound up the steep but civil approach trail.  Water dripped from the multicolored pocketed cliffs in a couple spots, each surrounded by a tiny oasis of plants and moss.  We dropped packs and quickly peeled layers as the skies continued to clear and the morning actually became hot.

Cindy Gray enjoys some pre-spring sunshine on "Gypsies"

A handful of warm-up lines led to a run on a new route, and from there into lunch, announced by growling bellies.  Hawks cut the air above the steep walls of the crag, and buzzards circled above, alert for meals of opportunity, while ravens mocked them all, tumbling in the occasional winds and winging back and forth on errands unknown.  A lazy garter snake stirred from her entwining with a smaller male and stared at us as we we ran up another couple lines to finish the day, undisturbed by these odd creatures exploring her home.

A hard winter, after a hard year, and a lot of things that have taken my thoughts and life away from climbing in an undeniable, inexorable fashion, for the first time in years completely and utterly beyond my control. There is little or no relief on the horizon, but there are new friends and a handful of the old, despite my irascible temperament, a family who supports and does their best to understand me and there is Miss Cindy, my Cindy B, the incredible, inspiring lady I love, who gave me a family, and a new grandchild and who will be beside me, for as long as she can, for as long as there are places still unseen, trails to walk, mountains to climb.

She sat there in the sun, her pipe in one hand, eyes closed, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth, the sun shining on her face, the breeze filled with the smell of the mountains coming back to life.  In this moment, we had all that we needed.  In this moment, we were eternal, neither young nor old, neither rich nor poor, still, unmoving, present in the moment.

And for that one moment, all was right with the world.

Muscles pleasantly stretched and quivering, we packed gear and spent another half hour just sitting in the sun relaxing, before heading down and going in search of, hot showers, homemade sweet-and-sour curry chicken salad, cold beverages and comfortable chairs.  Robins hopped through the underbrush and squirrels clambered up the massive sycamores as we wound along the river towards home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Canna bureaucracy

Some thoughts on a snowy morning.

The cannabis question has been with us for over a century, now.  From the earliest days of the colonies, hemp was a prime crop, one which George Washington planted not only as a textile, but in hopes of supplanting tobacco as a recreational smoke. Extracts of hemp oils and flowers were used by physicians in the Royal Court and in the New World, its properties had been explored by the early rulers and scientists of China and one would have to have a completely unrealistic view of mankind to believe that no one on Earth had ever taken the time to select and crossbreed the frost and drought-resistant plants for stronger resin and larger flowers.   We’re curious little monkeys.  Gregor Mendel was just the first one to write notes about it.

Cannabis is relatively benign, but let us be honest, very little on this world is beyond abuse. No doubt over the centuries, people who have lacked motivation or fallen on hard times or suffered from underlying depression have taken to smoking too much hemp at too young an age for too long, and wound up roughly as smart as a football bat.

Fact is, people have ruined their lives with just about everything possible, cradle to the grave, since there were two of us here, according to most of the stories that have been going around since fire was new.  

None of those stories ever goes on to tell how making rules ever actually stopped people from doing those things.  The long list of punishments for breaking the rules suggests that, human nature being what it is, maybe the whole rule thing never worked out any better for them than it has for the United States and her once again tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.

Prohibition, the bastard stepchild of conspiracy theory, corporate manipulation and racism, has wandered a strange and checkered road to the present, where it once again rises before us in all its complexity of ignored facts, generations of institutional prejudice and billions in federal salaries and private-sector profit, emerging scientific understanding  suppressed by the minority of sharply divided opinions for a variety of political agendas,  a struggle of cultures and values in which almost every voice of science, compassion and reason has been ignored.  Even with the example of one failure glaring from less than a century in the past, the United States Government continues to pursue a path of interdiction, instead of innovation.

And the fault does not fall at any single doorstep.

Too many of the spokespeople for both sides have too much invested personally to truly see the big picture; ego, an addiction to the limelight, or a bulldog-vicious determination to win at all costs, even the loss of allies and friends and at the price of bloodshed and destruction.  Conversely, too many on both sides see and care solely about the big picture- at the cost of any awareness of the individuals involved, save a tactical awareness of their value as images, either for vilification or promotion, distraction or filler.

Let’s be clear from the start; like Samuel Clemens’ friend Mark Twain, I wouldn’t belong to any group that would have me.  A critical thinker in the tradition of Mister Twain, Cummings, Asimov, and Heinlein,  I find no contradiction between being an outspoken advocate of absolute freedom and equality for cannabis and hemp users, providers and growers, and my beliefs in maintaining a strong intelligent military, reducing the cost and intrusion of government, reforming campaign contributions , putting an end to the welfare-poverty treadmill, preserving the Second Amendment, enforcing the death penalty, and reducing taxes. 

I am an American with personal reasons for wanting this plant returned to our use above and beyond the simple fact that the Government has no right to prohibit it.

I am not some welfare daddy trying to score free government weed without losing any of my SNAP benefits or having to actually pay the rent in the apartment where I neglect my kids while dealing crack and bath salts.

Oops… sorry, did I drop a stereotype? 

Guess what?  They don’t exist without examples.

Sell your PC crap to someone who hasn’t slept in their vehicle inside the urban blight of a major metropolis for the better part of a month.

I am also not some “let’s all go save the planet” fan who has a signed copy of “An Inconvenient Truth”.  I personally think Algore is a full of shit as the rest of the talking heads pimping a cause.  He flew around in a huge jet and traveled in a limo, he lives in a mansion and his wife was the genius that decided outlawing Judas Priest would end teen suicide, remember? If George W. Bush did a decent thing in his career, it was keeping Gore out of the White House.  No one was ever delusional enough to think that Dubya was a genius, maybe because, for as many stupid things as he said, he never claimed to invent the Internet.

I know that cannabis oil doesn't cure cancer, although it has a devastating ffect on some cells and tumors some of the time.  And I know that it will take a lot more than this "seed-bearing plant" to aaccomplish the "healing of the nations" or even the restart of the American economy.

So I’m a contradiction.  In the end, the only thing I have in common with 95% of the people in the movement to end Prohibition is a desire to consume and possess the byproducts of a simple plant in a responsible fashion without fear of fine, citation, arrest, seizure or invasion of my property.  We share a common goal.  I don’t have to like them or invite them over for lunch. Many of them are zealots as bad as if not worse than the opposition.  

As a group, we have achieved some stumbling steps, in much the same fashion that the buffalo once migrated in vast numbers, traveling in a generally east-west direction across the Great Plains.  Calling it a concerted effort would have been stretching things a bit, indicating a directing will where there was only instinct and appetite.

I have watched as the “leaders” (really the spokespersons) have led this fight, mainly from the rear or the conference hall or the buffet line, in much the same way that the rutting bulls contested for dominance among those ancient wandering herds and steered their direction.  

I’ve seen them online, in pics and clips, seen podcasts and TV spots, watched hours of YouTube, seen them hobnob with famous musicians and actors, representatives and senators, film makers and glass blowers, hot chicks and tattoo artists and horticulture experts from across the globe.

I’ve seen pics of them at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, at the Hard Rock Cafe and Colorado smoke shops, at festivals and gatherings, rallies and benefit concerts.

I haven’t seen any of them in handcuffs.

Maybe I expect too much.

Maybe I’ve read enough history to recall that very few people have ever managed a major shift in consciousness signing petitions, appearing on their own TV show online, or playing by the rules.

But in the end I am ronin.

I would like to say that I bow to no man, or creed, or banner, but I’m too cynical for that. I have folded down like an abject slave in the face of necessity and hunger and despair, surrendered courtesy and grace to anger and self-righteousness, and broken every vow of honor I ever took on my name.

I have no honor, nothing to lose, no shame left.

I stand to gain nothing by my honesty, except to reclaim maybe just a shadow of that honor.

Always a fair trade.

We are being led by fools.

On both sides.

While Moms for Marijuana walked the halls of Congress and retired LEOs LEAPed, the checks and balances system has been further dismantled around us amid the smoke and mirrors of market instabilities, the start-up of Obamacare, budget battles and disingenuously-manufactured terrorist attacks. 

While Congressmen and gubernatorial candidates smiled and made promises, corporate patents on seed stock and genetic information have placed much of the potential benefit of legalization forever beyond our reach, without a word from advocacy groups or the Department charged with protecting your right to fair Commerce practices.  

Your President and mine took the occasion of his re-election to sign the Indefinite Detention and Detainment Act into law on New Year’s Eve of that same year, while continuing to raid dispensaries, seize property, arrest seniors and kill veterans, keeping the troops in the Middle East, detaining innocent people in Gitmo, losing diplomatic personnel in Benghazi.

While attempting by every means possible to separate Americans and especially patients from their right to keep and bear arms, the Attorney General’s office and assorted law enforcement agencies lost track of hundreds of weapons.  Almost fifty of then were later linked to shootings, in some cases the deaths of federal officers. Despite rallies following Newtown and Aurora, the National Rifle Association remains silent about Illinois legislation to remove the handgun rights of medical cannabis users.

They does this because supporters of legalization who are members allow them to, and because the leaders of the cannabis advocacy groups do not call for activists to speak out on their websites and at their rallies, to demand that they truly defend the rights of ALL gun owners.

The Supreme Court has been busy defending the rights of Monsanto (the folks with the patent rights to you future crops of cannabis and hemp) to grow and sell genetically manipulated organisms without labeling, with no idea what the long-term effects of consumption or environmental impact may be.  

During the same period, the SCOTUS continued to deny American citizens the right to grow and possess a plant with a proven history of over 5,000 years of nutritional and medicinal applications; denied simple cultivation and personal consumption to law-abiding U.S. citizens, including those with pressing medical needs and chronic or terminal ailments.  

Exemptions have been granted in the case of Washington State and Colorado, but how can there geographically-defined freedom or exclusion from those freedoms inside anything that can honestly be called The United States? And yet the advocates are happily, busily taking the longest possible path to challenge this absurdity; endlessly submitting petitions and chatting on live streaming podcasts, between demonstrations on the best way to clean your glassware and a showcase of that mad Tahoe Kush.

Our government will relent and allow experiments to crossbreed the avian flu virus into humans, a potential weapon and a contagion nightmare, but North American research into the uses and true effects of the multiple components of cannabis proceed at a snail’s pace, regaining lost information in microscopic steps, while advocates judge the best pot brownies in Denver.

The Federal government placed the plant and its byproducts in the Schedule of Control Substances as a dangerous narcotic with no medical value despite the findings and recommendations of a Presidential Commission, the same Federal Government that holds two medical patents on cannabis derivative medicines, Sativex and Marinol.

And while all this has happened, we have been endlessly distracted by polls and petitions, and the breathless reporting of yet another court case.  We have smiling statements made by people in Brooks Brothers suits but nothing about a rally on the Capitol Mall, or a serious, media-covered, large-scale protest outside a Supreme Court trial, led by the people who travel around the country assuring us we are making progress when down here on the ground, evidence of that progress is pretty thin.

Why does it seem as if NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp and most of the rest of the advocacy groups are competing with each other?  Why fight for the spotlight?  

What does it matter if Steve Elliott interviews someone on the other end of the country from the Capitol Building, the only place where anything that truly matters is going to happen now that Colorado and Washington have managed to vote in legal cannabis, albeit in much different forms?

We have half a dozen advocacy groups, most founded around and by lawyers, and yet no one in them seems able to read a government text, or sort out the legalese of the Acts in question. We are asked to ask congress to ask the President to sign an Executive Order in direct contravention to the checks and balances system, then asked to tell the President to tell a Congress (who should have been listening to we, the People for the last three decades and have clearly not been) that they need to ignore the short-term millions from pharmaceutical and faith-based super PACs and private prison contractors and vote for us, the folks who have no choice but to pay them for ignoring us.

We attack the office and person of the Attorney General, and alternately demand and plead for him to show us mercy, as soon as he is done firing the head of the DEA, changing the rules for the OCNDP, freeing the cannabis prisoners and expunging all their records, reforming immigration, arresting and charging his boss with treason and pulling monkeys out of his butt.


No, not really.  I made up the part about the monkeys.

We’ve had a Constitutional, bi-cameral, capitalist government for quite a while now.  It functions in a limited number of ways, when it comes to making and repealing laws, adding and removing things from lists, etc.  It is a maze, but it is a maze with a limited number of entrances and two possible exits, winners and losers. 

Inexplicable is the fact that it has so thoroughly baffled the people who claim to be “working for change from the inside”, who have been admired and celebrated for “fighting the good fight” since the day Nixon’s ink dried, but none of whom seem to have a clue how to get from Point A (Prohibition) to Point B (Legalization) without creating a mountain of paper, a mass of online traffic, and a massive top-heavy lobbying machine with twelve million drivers and no clear map.

Why is this?

Marx had a simple way of breaking down most social questions, and it was a fairly valid one.

Who profits?

What happens if government simply surrenders?

Yes, we all know that it won’t happen, but what if?

What if tomorrow you were free to walk out on your front porch and light up the fattest joint you could roll? 

What would happen if you could walk over to your girlfriend’s house and spend the afternoon watching “Bones” completely baked on brownies?

What would really change in the world if you could grow your own tomatoes and cucumbers and cannabis right there in your garden, for yourself, or to trade to your 18-yr-old-or older neighbor for some cucumbers or melons or carrots?  What if you paid for a simple vendors’ license and a spot at the farmer’s market and sold it as-is, let the buyer beware, and if caught, let the illegitimate seller beware as well?  What if big growers could sell and ship their products under the same tax codes as alcohol and tobacco, or, in the case of hemp, the same rules and protections as corn and soybeans?  What if every insurance company agreed to accept cannabis as a legit medicine?  If bars could once again offer smoking sections that for the first time included a tasteful selection of cannabis?

What if the intoxication levels and penalties for cannabis DUI were the same as alcohol?  If bars, convenience and liquor stores, tobacco sales and adult novelty sales all had to be 1,000 feet from schools just like bud bars and dispensaries?

What would the people who spend their days and nights making speeches and standing in front of cameras and making up the news any way they want do for a living then?  What would they be without the identity of advocates?

What benefit is it to them if the rest of the world is free?

Free to forget them?

Because face it, we aren’t talking about inspiring people here.  Mason Tvert is a smart guy, he writes good copy, but he looks like one of his favorite lines is “Super-size it!” Mister T wasn’t exactly leading the charge, nor was Steve Elliott bellowing a call to war while waving a copy of Hemp News and a slice of pepperoni  at his side, when Obama failed to even mention cannabis in the State of the Union Address, despite early predictions and broad hints on the MPP page and Hemp News that the Choom Boss would do so.

Let’s face it, once the big bang of legalization is over, working through the smaller stuff like how we are going to regulate quality and chemicals and certify organic is going to be B-O-R-I-N-G. No one is going to read the last Weedblog post about how determined delegates hammered out acceptable levels of nitrogen in shake, loose, outdoor grown, Kush (to be used for baking only) or which company failed to win an organic certification, except the kind of people who still read Mother Jones or the Christian Science Monitor.

Not the people who are going to invite you to smoke some badass Lebanese with their stripper girlfriend, or get you kick-ass seats to a game or concert.

So things get dragged out, just a little longer than they might necessarily need to be.

More petitions, more rallies, more fundraisers and podcasts.

Just a little more of that sweet fame, the most addictive and ephemeral rush of all, made all the more sweet by how little most of the bigger names truly deserve to be famous or admired.  They may have shaken a lot of hands and kissed a lot of ass, raised a lot of money, and hosted a lot of dinners, but who are they, and where have they been?

Even those who have done great things tend to lose sight of the goal, to begin mistaking themselves for the cause.  Maybe because they have nothing truly invested. 

I bet less than a hundred members of NORML could name the President, or CEO, or whatever it is you have over there… I don’t pay much attention myself, in truth.  But he looks good in a polo shirt and sweater.  Bet he plays a mean game of golf, or tennis…

Bet he never met arranged to meet someone from a bulletin board business card and a phone call, with his heart in his mouth and a fistful of wrinkled twenties in hand for a bag of unknown buds.

Or wondered if his truck was being broken into by the crack whores outside as he watched his wife walk through a door into another room with a guy carrying two Glocks and a handful of prison tats that said bad things about his past, with two more guys who could have been his brothers riding shotgun (literally) at the bullet-scarred street door to the dispensary, while a meth head muttered and raved to your left and a tinfoiler on your right tried to explain the connection between fluoride, HAARP, chemtrails, 9/11, the Jews, the Vatican, the Borgias and the World Health Organization.

Bet he’s never assumed the position.

No, most of these guys look like the guys who acquired Microsoft stock about the time it got to be worth something, who couldn’t or didn’t get a foot in the door with lobbies and PACs, who wanted something a little edgy, a little different from a stint as a public defender, with all the legalese but with no real risk. Like one day, fresh back from Cancun or South Padre, they looked around and said “Hey, the trust fund is running a little low… but I hear advocacy pays pretty well!”  With that decided, they probably put the game on the flat screen, cracked another microbrew and called their escort service to have her deliver a quarter of whatever sounded funky and cost the most, that week.

I know that’s judging by appearances, but that’s the impression these guys give; a little hipper, a little smoother, with a little more on the ball than you and me, and in no particular hurry to take the fight to the wall.



Imagine what working-class Joe thinks, watching people who don’t have the conviction to actually put themselves on the line, preaching to him about rights he sees slipping away every day as he tries to earn enough to eat and pay the bills, while they fly from convention to interviews to TV spot.

Think of the curious people who surf through our discussions and comment sections online, who read the illiterate frenzy and fantastic stream-of-consciousness ravings, the scam or sting ads to order drugs through the mail or internet, the profanity and the posing thug-lovers and the hundred other forms of human trash on display.  Why do these things stay up on websites for days?  The users no longer care about the integrity of the movement, because the leaders have no true personal involvement, and integrity is a luxury in the age of the backroom deal. 

How can we be accepted as being any better, when so little of what we show the world is any better?

Try to see us through the eyes of a church-going grandparent, living in what was once a small town now overrun by spoiled college kids and arrogant money, filled with lies but confronted again and again by people who seem bent on becoming the embodiment of every drug stereotype.

 What of the veteran, on the fence, living on a pittance from a government that would rather forget, just another forgotten face who sees just how little the talking heads at the top actually give a damn, be it the top of the Veterans’ Administration or of the reform movement, about the brothers and sisters in arms slain and incarcerated in this lost war.  Once the rally ends and the petition is signed, how many legalization crowds give a thought to the plight of those same veterans?  How many offer a word, a meal or a ride? 

Think of the hundreds of thousands who have not spoken, yet.

There are so many applications for hemp, and so many uses for cannabis and its extracts.  Let us not allow those potentials to be stolen by blind trust in our representatives, or by ignoring the eternal greed and treachery of Prohibition’s offspring, the pills-punishment-incarceration-and-rehabilitation complex.

The polls predict success and increasing acceptance, among people who cared to respond. 

That headline was true a week before Reagan won the election.  Two years later, Nancy and her celluloid cowboy rode into history by restarting a billion dollar drug war, while Oliver North was arming twelve-year-olds and establishing coke routes into the United States from South America. 

Victory is a certainty when it is written into both law and history books.  Until then, it is just a convenience of perspective.

Look at how the herd moves.  Decide if the direction we are headed is correct, and if the speed at which we move is satisfactory.

If not, do something. 


Write a real email, not a form letter, to your state and federal representatives.  If you are in D.C., go look up your congressman or woman and tell them what you care about.

Emotional social media posts change nothing in the real world, and waiting for someone else to look after your best interests is accepting that someone else will decide what those best interests are and where they lay.

For every victory, there is a cost.  Count on it. Your enemy does.  

Time to grow up and accept the terms of this fight, even if the smiling faces online don’t want to see the storm ahead.

The tide is turning, according to the people who get paid to tell you exactly that.

I still say, Question authority.  Any authority. 

Even the cannabureaucracy.

Even mine.

But remember who has been there, on the line, and who has not.

Tides go in and out, and a wise person does not build too close to the sea on the advice of those who have never sailed deep waters.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

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